Rice is like water: Plentiful, precious, easy to take for granted. As babies, after your mother’s milk, rice is one of the first foods you eat, and as toothless old grandparents, rice is one of the last foods you eat. When you’re hungry, there’s nothing like a bowl of freshly-cooked, steaming rice, and when you’re sick, a bowl of simple juk (죽, rice porridge) will soothe your stomach. One popular saying in Korea is “밥이 보약,” meaning “rice is restorative,” or in other words, that “good food is good medicine.” Because rice is so essential to Korean cuisine, we wanted to take the time to dive in and learn a little more about this special grain. If you’d like to hear an audio version of this post, listen to our Local Eats rice episode on Koreascape here.
If you speak Korean, one of the first things you learn is that the word for food, bap (밥), is also the same word for cooked rice. In fact, there are many different names given to rice at different stages of development:
– 모 (mo) refers to the rice seedlings that are planted in spring
– 벼 (byeo) refers to the mature but unharvested rice
– 쌀 (ssal) refers to rice in general but also the harvested grains
– 밥 (bap) refers to cooked rice
Rice wasn’t always such a staple ingredient. Though rice has been in the country since at least 2000 B.C. (and possibly earlier by some controversial accounts), for most of the peninsula’s history it was a precious grain consumed more by the aristocracy. Commoners ate more of other grains, like millet and barley. Starting in the Joseon Dynasty, however, new methods of farming were introduced, and in particular one called “yiangbeop” (이앙법), which involved cultivating rice seedlings separately before planting them in long, straight rows in the paddies. This made weeding much more efficient and crop yields quadrupled. Later, when Korea came under colonial rule by Japan, rice production once again increased—Japanese policy was, of course, to increase yield for Japanese consumption. One source indicates that while rice production increased, consumption among Koreans dropped by half during this time. Sonja remembers her grandmother telling stories about growing up under Japanese rule: Her parents would hide rice from the Japanese, including in her school bag—no one thought to check a little girl’s school bag for rice.
Rice production today is a largely mechanical process. We went down to Sonja’s uncle’s farm in Jeolla-do to see the chusu (추수, rice harvest). Harvesting happens just after Chuseok, the fall holiday, when the grains start to get heavy and golden. There’s another saying in Korean about harvest-time: “벼는 익을수록 고개를 숙인다,” which means “The riper the rice, the more it hangs its head.” It’s an idiom: The more knowledgeable you become, the more humble you get. Down at the farm, within the space of an hour, the combine harvester had cleared a 2000 pyeong (6600 m2) field. You can hear the sounds of the rice sheaves being cleared, poured into a giant sack, and then transferred into the drying machine in the clip below.
So: Are Koreans eating less rice than they did before? All the facts and figures we found agree—yes, Koreans are eating less rice, more wheat, and in fact, mixing a variety of grains in with their rice in a return to old ways. (This is a good long read on the topic in Korean.) Whether reduced consumption is a problem or not we’ll leave for another time, but we do agree that we can all pay a little more attention to the origins and production of the rice we do eat. We talked with Kim Kyung, who oversees marketing and operations at Ggini, a Korean food education organization. He made an excellent point: “This is really an issue of cultural codes. For example, you know we drink and enjoy a lot of coffee here. So pretty much everyone understands what makes a good cup of coffee, whether it’s first, using beans that have been freshly roasted within a couple of weeks, or second, grinding the beans right before pouring for a richer, fuller fragrance. But people don’t know how to grind rice, and they’re surprised if they hear about it. They don’t know what jeong-mi, or traditional grinding even is. We care deeply about the freshness of our favorite foods but as for rice, we don’t even think about when it’s milled or polished.”
He also pointed out that we could probably name more varieties of coffee than of rice… and upon hearing this, we laughed nervously. It was probably true. But this is one of the reasons we started bburi kitchen in the first place, and we hope you, our readers, get something from this, too.
As mentioned above, there are many varieties of rice available in Korea. Today, there are about 15 main varieties of plain white rice (maep ssal). But for everyday consumers, the four most common labels on rice bags you’ll find in stores are maep ssal (맵쌀, plain short-grain rice) and its unmilled companion, hyeonmi ssal (현미쌀, brown rice); as well as chap ssal (찹쌀, glutinous rice) and its unmilled state, hyeonmi chap ssal (현미 찹쌀, glutinous brown rice).
How to eat
There are innumerable kinds of food made from rice in Korea, from porridges to rice cakes to alcohol. At home, most families will have an electric rice cooker or pot of rice with rice in it for daily meals, and you can expect rice to come with most meals at Korean restaurants. You can mix different kinds of rice along with other grains like millet, barley and sorghum, as well as beans, chestnuts and gingko nuts.
How to choose
As Kim Kyung indicated, rice polishing is a very important step of the process. In fact, it’s more important to look at the rice polishing date (도정일, dojeong-il) than the year the rice came out. The more recently polished the rice, the fresher it will taste. Look for grains without a green tinge (those are underripe) and avoid bags with many broken rice grains. During warm summer months, it’s important to keep an eye out for small insects because one infected bag of rice can create an infestation in your whole kitchen!
How to store
If you get freshly polished rice, but you store it in a hot and humid place, because of the lipid content that rice has, it will quickly start to go rancid. It will actually start to make a greasy smell. So keep your rice in an airtight container in the refrigerator. And also buy small packages at a time so that you can consume your rice easily and buy freshly polished grains again the next time you shop.